Honor Scenes: Honoring Misty Upham's Critical Interventions

Curator's Note

In the Numu tekwapu, the Comanche language, I say Itsa tupuuni mabitsiaru. This is an honor scene. Like honor songs by and for Native Peoples that recognize, respect, and relate Indigenous history, events, and accomplishments, honor scenes engage Natives’ relations with film and media to tell Indigenous-centric stories. Honor scenes are both on- and off-screen narrative compilations expressed through films, writings (like this one), and other storytelling media. As a dual framework of reciprocal relations in honoring, such scenes recognize, read, and honor the work of Natives who use media to recognize, represent, and honor Native America.

Continuing the legacy of honoring in Indian Country, this writing recognizes the work of the late Blackfeet actress Misty Upham, 32 years young when she passed in October 2013 on the Muckleshoot Reservation southeast of Seattle. Upham began studying theater in the early 1990s in Seattle after she and her family left her first home, the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. Upham’s honor scenes comprise off-screen and on-screen acts of intervention that break down the representational restrictions in American filmmaking. After receiving stereotypical “Pocahontas” and “rez girl” roles early in her career, Upham resisted them and proactively sought out roles of complexity and multidimensionality that she made her own in a cinematic climate nearly void of recognizably Native characters. Honor scenes also recognizes Upham’s work to honor us, Native America, and our ongoing struggles for social justice. To get beyond roles of “leathers and feathers or drunk on a reservation,” she once wrote, “I’ve worked my hardest to show how diverse and wonderful our people are.” Upham believed that films were Native America’s “greatest ambassadors”; analyzing her film work provides insight into the relationship between her offscreen struggles and onscreen roles.

In 2008, Upham represented a major role of humanizing complexity as the Mohawk character Lila in Courtney Hunt's feature film Frozen River. French director Arnaud Desplechin was so moved by her performance that he cast her in his 2013 feature Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, alongside Benicio del Toro, Gary Farmer (Cayuga), Michelle Thrush (Cree), Lily Gladstone (Blackfeet), and other Indigenous actors. After viewing Frozen River, Desplechin said, "I understood that Native Americans could represent themselves.” His words are a trans-Atlantic testament to her impact on French and Indigenous cinema.

Desplechin also filmed some of Jimmy P in Blackfeet Country in Browning, Montana, which brought Upham back to the reservation where her life began and activated a dialectic of reciprocity. As she explained on the Jimmy P set, “Coming back to Browning to work on the film was probably the strangest experience I’ve ever had because the beginning of my journey was here. And to come back with this type of production…It’s like coming home on a golden chariot!” She was, as she says, “coming full circle to the reservation I left to fulfill my dream.” Having traveled the world with her films, found her empowering extended tribal relations in new cinematic comrades and teachers, renewed and honed her craft of performative medicine, she could give back and share some of her medicine to inspire an Indigenous community. Reciprocally, the reservation could provide a site of filming, a site of Upham family history, and Blackfeet history, and a site of feeling what “it’s like coming home on a golden chariot.”

Itsa tupuuni mabitsiaruThis is an honor scene, a powerful honor scene of Blackfeet reciprocity, with a French guy thrown in for good measure, resulting from Misty Upham’s critical interventions into Native self-representation. This is an honor scene, among others, which may continue to unfold and develop for generations to come because honor scenes never end. They are always becoming, and the Indigenous performance networks of critics, viewers, directors, writers, and casts and crews in Indian Country and beyond—we are always here watching, writing, singing, speaking, listening, feeling, and honoring the storied scenes set before us and affectively with us.

For notes and references, see Dustin Tahmahkera, "Honor Scenes: Honoring Misty Upham's Critical Interventions," JCMS 60.2 (2021): 187-193.



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